Avoiding detection is a quintessential element of being a spy. Indeed, the purpose of working covertly is to be able to share intelligence about the enemy without being caught. But history is full of spies who, for one reason or another, were caught and suffered the consequences.
Yet while many of them were caught due to bad luck or a worthy opponent, some were uncovered under rather odd and even funny circumstances!
Bouquet of flowers
Sometimes it takes a body language expert to spot something unique that most people would miss. This was the case for former FBI Agent Joe Navarro, who caught a spy solely based on how he carried a bouquet of flowers.
Unlike most people in the US, who carry a bouquet by the base with the flowers up, the suspect gripped the bouquet towards the top, with the flowers upside down and the bouquet held behind him. This is how some people carry flowers in Eastern Europe, and that was all the FBI needed to make a move. It turns out, the man was indeed a spy.
Christopher Boyce (pictured) was the son of a CIA agent who got caught up on the wrong side of the Cold War. Boyce recruited his childhood friend Andrew Daulton Lee and hatched a plan to sell information to the Soviets. Lee would drive to a Soviet embassy in Mexico, where he’d trade the state secrets given to him by Boyce.
Lee delivered the information by dropping papers over the Soviet embassy gate. This would be his downfall, as he was spotted by the Mexican police and arrested for littering. Following an investigation that exposed their plan to sell US secrets to the Soviet Union, both men were eventually arrested.
A thick accent… and a sausage!
Josef Jakobs bought his way out of a concentration camp by striking a deal with the Nazis: he’d become a spy for them in Britain. On mission day, Jakobs parachuted from a plane onto British soil. Unfortunately, he broke his ankle when he landed, leaving him helpless. He decided to fire a pistol to get some attention.
He was unlucky again, as it was English soldiers who found him. What they found was a man with a thick German accent carrying £500, a passport, and, reportedly, a German sausage. Jakobs was instantly pegged as a German spy. He was executed at the Tower of London after being found guilty of espionage.
A concerned mother
Polish Baron George Sosnowski enlisted both his wife and a woman he once had an affair with to work with him as spies against the Nazis. Both Baroness Benita von Berg (pictured) and Renate von Natzmer worked at the German Ministry of Defense—a privileged location to get intel for the Allies.
Noticing that her daughter was working late hours, Renate von Natzmer’s mother decided to go to the ministry and complain about how much her poor daughter was working. This, of course, rang alarm bells in the ministry. Both women were found to have been passing information to the Allied forces via Sosnowski, and were arrested and executed as a result.
East Germany had a peculiar spy unit during the Cold War, which consisted of suave men who engaged in “sexpionage.” Their mission was to go to West Germany, where they seduced women and sweet-talked them into spilling secrets.
However, many of these “Romeo spies” sported the traditional haircut worn by men in East Germany, and this small detail was enough to give them away as spies.
Losing a watch
Belgian nurse Marthe McKenna was working in a hospital in German-occupied territory in 1915 when she was recruited by the British and became a spy.
McKenna was a successful spy, until she lost her wristwatch with her initials engraved on it at a German weapons depot. The Germans found it and put an anonymous ad up saying that a watch had been found. The nurse fell for it and responded to the ad. She was caught.
David Owen Dodd was a young spy for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. He’d present a pass and a birth certificate to prove he was underage so that he could travel across enemy lines. He traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, and brought back information.
One day, he got lost in the woods and ended up behind enemy lines. When he tried to cross the border, he didn’t have a pass, but showed the soldiers his birth certificate and a notebook he carried. The notebook contained a Morse code message with the locations of Union troops. The Union soldiers were able to decipher it and arrested him. Dodd was then sentenced to death.
Aldrich Ames worked with the CIA as a counterintelligence analyst for 31 years, ending up in Washington, D.C. When he found himself in financial ruin after a messy divorce, he began spying for the Soviets to make some extra cash.
After earning around US$2 million from the Soviets, Ames went on a spending spree. He bought himself an expensive new house and a Jaguar car, paying for it all in cash. This triggered alarm bells and the FBI started surveilling him. Aldrich Ames pleaded guilty to espionage charges and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
A carrier pigeon
Sarah Aaronsohn was a Jewish woman living in Turkish-occupied Palestine who ended up working as a spy for the Allies during World War I. As a member of the Jewish spy ring Nili, Aaronsohn’s mission was to pass information about the Ottoman Turks to the Allies.
One day, a carrier pigeon carrying intel was intercepted by the Turks, which led to her being captured. She was tortured, but managed to take her own life before her captors could get information out of her. In the end, Aaronsohn’s work helped the British drive the Turks out of Palestine.